On her website, Elabd writes: “With hundreds of Arabic releases every month, we handpick the best books, guaranteeing you a steady flow of lovable Arabic books for your family to enjoy.” ArabLit wanted to find out a little more about the project:
Can you tell us a little first about the genesis of the “Arabic Book a Month” project? What made you decide, Yes, I can do this?
Dina Elabd: Starting this project was a very personal decision. I strongly believe that reading is extremely comforting and beneficial to children. When my parents raised me in the States, I became an avid reader. To me, books were a source of knowledge, excitement, and comfort. Older, I realized that reading made me excel in spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and many other subjects at school — far beyond my peers. I also knew that when I was too embarrassed to ask a specific question or could find no one to talk to about what interested me, books were always there.
However, I only read English children’s books, as Arabic literature was unavailable aside from bland textbooks. Hence, my Arabic suffered. Only as an adult, when I started writing stories, then magazines, then books, did I really delve into the world of Arabic children’s literature. Children now are lucky as there is finally a wave of quality Arabic children’s literature. Connecting families to these materials was exactly what I needed growing up, though I didn’t know it then. These books would have strengthened my knowledge and love of the Arabic language.
There was no question in mind. I knew I had to do this.
Where do you look for new Arabic children’s books?
DE: Over the past ten years, I have developed a Middle East-wide network of Arabic publishers, authors, illustrators, librarians, and parents. Aside from being an author and critic, I am a board member of the local Egyptian chapter of the International Board of Books for Young People (IBBY). I have attended several children’s book conferences and events where I regularly evaluate and keep an eye out for new books. All these sources are very helpful in knowing what books exist, but I personally evaluate them before selecting them for the families subscribed to Arabic Book A Month.
What criteria do you use in selecting books for the “book a month” club?
DE: At Arabic Book A Month, I select only the highest quality Arabic children’s books for our families. Story line, illustration, language, flow, messaging, printing quality, publisher, author, and translation are all evaluated. This criteria is used at the University of Cambridge, where I earned my degree in Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature.
You also do school visits in Egypt. How important do you think school visits are for developing a love of Arabic children’s literature in Egyptian kids (and beyond)? What have been the ups and downs of planning & executing school visits?
DE: As an author, I regularly visit schools to read and discuss my four books. Initially, I reached out to different schools in Egypt, but recently I have found that librarians and school teachers often reach out to me. This is an extremely positive development in the Egyptian schooling system, which shows that schools are dedicated to helping build a love of reading in their classrooms. Author visits are always an exciting event for students, especially when the schools diligently prepares for it ahead of time by having the students read part of the book, write down questions, and pre-order the book. I often make the experience even more educational by including workshops.
Can you talk about how some of the “book a month” books are being used? Some of the reactions?
DE: I personally contact each of our subscribers to better understand their needs and uses for Arabic Book A Month. They are all dedicated parents and educators who are regularly looking for quality Arabic children’s literature to familiarize their children with the Arabic language. All reactions have been very positive. Many subscribers told me that they are thrilled I have started this business, and that they have waited a long time for a service such as this one.
One Arab-American mom wrote me:
“I look forward to getting the books. It is essential for me to teach my son (3 years) to read Arabic and develop a love for it with exciting and interesting subjects. Growing up in Damascus kids will use books for school not for fun necessarily until one time I discovered a kids magazine at the local book store/candy shop called Samer. Only then I realized how fun reading can be. Using both languages at home and at work as a medical and community interpreter I think it is essential to use all resources to teach our kids Arabic here.”
DE: Among Arabic children’s picture books, I am a big fan of Abeer Al Taher’s work, especially Dar Al Yasmine’s A Very Naughty Cat. It is certainly one of my favorites due to the witty text and illustration style – Maya Fidawi is incredible. I always find a book brilliant when very few words and simple illustrations can communicate a large amount of feeling, in this case about love and companionship. Another book I love is Goodnight Mom, published by Majdalawi Masterpieces, written by Hayam Abu Elads and illustrated by the talented Dina Fawakhiri. Again, the characters emotions and illustration style is spot on, and I believe the story will spark strong emotions for children and an enjoyable reading experience among families. This is actually one of the picture books I edited during my time working at Room to Read in Jordan.